Oliver Stone’s Alternate States: On Stone’s compulsive—and necessary—historical revisions
During recent publicity appearances for his ten-part Showtime series, The Untold History of the United States, Oliver Stone kept expressing disagreement with the media’s characterization of General David Petraeus as an exemplar of American military leadership. “I don’t see the hero,” Stone said on CBS Morning News. The real scandal, he explained, wasn’t Petraeus’s infidelity but his military strategy: his surge policy was “misguided,” especially in Afghanistan, where it was clearly backfiring.
Stone’s interrogators frequently seemed peeved, but in my view he was right. Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, among many others, has argued that the surge didn’t help us get out of Iraq. But such counterarguments rarely make it to network TV or to the front pages of the nation’s major papers. “The U.S. was defeated in Iraq,” Cole recently told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now. “And the only reason that they didn’t have to leave on helicopters suddenly at the end was because the Shiites ethnically cleansed the Sunnis.” Petraeus’s adoption of the surge in Afghanistan, Cole said, indicated that he hasn’t learned from Iraq. “It’s not right,” he added, “not to have any public discussion of the mistakes that were made.”
The need to present unaired stories has motivated Oliver Stone for decades, starting with Salvador (1986), which criticized U.S. policy in Central America, and carrying through to later films like Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, the two Wall Street movies, and feature-length documentaries about Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez. Now, with The Untold History of the United States, Stone wants to do the same thing with twentieth-century American history, which he thinks has been highly romanticized. He and his co-writer, Peter Kuznick, a history professor at American University, spent years working on a dense, deeply researched, and unusually compelling ten-part documentary, which started on Showtime last Monday at 8 pm and will run for another nine weeks.